The Heaven of Mercury
Shortlisted for the 2002 National Book Award in Fiction: a dark, riotous Southern novel of sex, death, and transformation.
Brad Watson’s first novel has been eagerly awaited since his breathtaking, award-winning debut collection of short stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men. Here, he fulfills that literary promise with a humorous and jaundiced eye. Finus Bates has loved Birdie Wells since the day he saw her do a naked cartwheel in the woods in 1916. Later he won her at poker, lost her, then nearly won her again after the mysterious poisoning of her womanizing husband. Does Vish, the old medicine woman down in the ravine, hold the key to Birdie’s elusive character? Or does Parnell, the town undertaker, whose unspeakable desires bring lust for life and death together? Or does the secret lie with some other colorful old-timer in Mercury, Mississippi, not such a small town anymore? With “graceful, patient, insightful and hilarious” prose (USA Today), Brad Watson chronicles Finus’s steadfast devotion and Mercury’s evolution from a sleepy backwater to a small city. With this “tragicomic story of missed opportunities and unjust necessities” (Fred Chappell), “Southern storytelling is alive and well in Watson’s capable hands” (Kirkus Reviews starred review). “His work may remind readers of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, or Flannery O’Connor, but has a power—and a charm—all its own, more pellucid than the first, gentler than the second, and kinder than the third” (Baltimore Sun).
“Sort of a calm wail. Each page a deep pleasure. A book at life’s pace yet somehow without any of its tedium. Only the Irish geniuses wrote like this.”
— Barry Hannah, author of Airships
“As mythic and miraculous as Faulkner and Marquez. Amazingly original, and a sublime delight for the lucky readers who get their hands on it. A novel so fine you don’t want it to ever end.”
— Larry Brown, author of Father and Son
The Inspiration for Birdie Wells
My maternal grandmother, Margaret Maria (Maggie) Wells Watson, known to her grandchildren as Mimi, was married at sixteen—too young to know any better, according to her lights. My grandfather, a determined and persuasive young shoe salesman, had almost bullied her into marrying him, she said. A year into the marriage, this girl, who’d never been more than kissed on the cheek before her wedding night, was pregnant with her first child, my aunt Marjory. Mimi used to say her childhood just vanished. MORE
Reading Group Guide: Discussion Questions and an Interview
“Extraordinary…. Mixes whimsy and hard truth in a way that’s heartbreaking…. Pungently erotic, and as affectionate as it is acidic… a perfect modern southern gothic.”
— Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“An intensity reminiscent of Faulkner, a bleak humor that recalls Flannery O’Connor, a whimsy inspired by Eudora Welty and a spontaneity suggesting prime Barry Hanna… Reading The Heaven of Mercury certainly restores one’s faith in Southern literature’s ability to startle and surprise… the risks pay off with insightful observations, dynamic relationships and scenes that crackle with tension and possibility.”
— Memphis Commercial Appeal